With only one day of practice and little time to install systems, Rochester Americans coach Chris Taylor outlined Thursday what would constitute as a successful Prospects Challenge for his young Sabres: displaying work ethic on every single shift.
While Taylor led the Sabres behind the bench through the three exhibition games, Sabres coach Ralph Krueger and general manager Jason Botterill watched closely from the stands. Both came away impressed with the level of competition they witnessed.
"It was impressive how much compete there was and the will to win was there right off the bat," Krueger said following the Sabres' 6-4 loss to Pittsburgh on Monday afternoon. "Even today with a bit of a rough start, they fought their way back into this one.
"I thought the leadership, players that had been here before, was strong and the new, younger, rookie players - the true rookie players - were well-guided through this process. We got to see some new players and I personally got to know them a lot better over these last few days. Overall, it was a good weekend."
Video: Prospects Challenge Highlights: Sabres vs. Penguins
The Sabres finished the weekend 2-1 with wins over New Jersey and Boston. They fought their way back from a 4-0 deficit on Monday, with Rasmus Asplund netting a pair of goals to tie the game in the third period only to see Nathan Legare score the winner for Pittsburgh 16 seconds later. Dylan Cozens and Brett Murray also scored goals.
The result of the last game aside, the individual and team performances boded well for players looking to make a splash once main camp opens on Thursday. And, as Botterill reinforced Monday, there will be opportunities for young players to supplant veterans and earn NHL roster spots over the next three weeks.
"I think we've shown in the past, it hasn't been lip service," Botterill said. "It's been with our actions. If players knock out veteran players, they're going to have the opportunity to be here. That's what we're going to be looking for.
"… We've talked a lot about our returning players, challenging them to be ready to go right away because we wanted to bring more players in to have more success as an organization. So, I think the competition's going got be great the next couple weeks."
Krueger echoed Botterill's words, describing the next few weeks as an open competition with definitive guidelines.
"You want players to come in a little uncomfortable about where the ice time is going to be and how they're going to get there," he said. "The process will be laid out clearly. It will be a very open communication on what it's going to take, and it's up to the players to answer those questions. I am convinced that the players will decide that on the ice and it will be easy for us at the end."
Several of the young candidates who will compete for a spot in Buffalo dressed for the Sabres this weekend. Asplund and Victor Olofsson, coming off strong first seasons in Rochester, tallied at least a point in all three games. Henri Jokiharju and William Borgen led an active, aggressive defense corps.
Botterill also praised Jacob Bryson and Casey Fitzgerald, two defensemen heading into their first training camp who could be part of the next group of players competing for spots in Buffalo.
"I was very happy with some of our veteran players who have been in our system before - Asplund, Olofsson - how they came in," he said. "But [I was] also very excited about some of our young defensemen - a guy like Bryson and Fitzgerald, coming into their first camp, I thought they handled themselves very well there too.
"So, we're excited now to move into NHL preseason games, having some of our young players challenge our NHL players for a roster spot but also, too, excited about what's developing in Rochester, sort of that next wave of players."
Then there's first-round pick Dylan Cozens, who scored a pair of goals (including one on Monday) and an assist in two games after spending the second half of the summer recovering from an injured left thumb.
Botterill continued to temper expectations when asked about Cozens' chances for a roster spot in Buffalo, referencing the difficulty for any player to make the jump straight from junior hockey to the NHL at 18 years old. Yet the Sabres are also committed to giving him a real shot, and the games at the Prospects Challenge were a valuable launch point.
"I think it helps him out a lot more just in preparation for going out on the ice for the first time on Friday," Botterill said. "Just the speed of the game. I thought he worked extremely hard over the last couple months here, staying in Buffalo, working with our staff.
"I know he sort of really wanted to play these games. I thought just from a conditioning standpoint, a timing standpoint, getting these games will certainly help him out next week."
Fitzgerald brings the noise
Taylor went out of his way to compliment Fitzgerald's aggressive play following Buffalo's first game on Friday. If that performance flew under the radar, the physical presence Fitzgerald provided Monday was impossible to miss.
The defenseman issued the loudest hit of the afternoon in the second period, closing the gap on Legare as he crossed the red line before sending the Penguins forward to the ice with a hip check into the boards. That hit paled in comparison to the punishment he unleashed on Anthony Angello when the two dropped their gloves later in the period.
Fitzgerald won that fight by unanimous decision, unleashing a vicious cycle of right hooks and uppercuts as the Sabres bench erupted behind him. It was an impressive showing from a player who had only fought once before, all the way back in juniors.
"It was a good fight," Fitzgerald said afterward. "Glad I could get the boys going there."
Video: POSTGAME: Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald's father, Tom - a longtime NHL forward - was in town for the tournament with New Jersey, for whom he currently serves as assistant general manager. Casey said the fight came up when he spoke to his dad after the game.
"He just said, 'good scrap,'" Casey said. "He said, 'You didn't get that from me, you got that from your mother.' I kind of laughed at that."
Botterill provided updates on defenseman Lawrence Pilut and goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, both of whom were held out of the Prospects Challenge as they recover from surgeries. Pilut (shoulder) is expected to be ready for game action in mid-October, while Luukkonen's (hip) potential return is targeted for November. Both players will miss training camp this month.
Training camp opens when players report to KeyBank Center for testing on Thursday, with on-ice sessions set to begin the following morning. You can find the full schedule for camp here.